copyright © 1998-1999 Dennis Paul Himes

An Atheist Apology


Back when I was a Catholic and I mentioned that fact to someone I don't think anyone ever asked me, "Why?". Since I've become an atheist, however, it has happened several times. This is usually a good thing, especially when the questioner actually wants an answer to the question asked, and not to some other question I'm supposed to somehow know is the real one (such as "Why do you hate God?"). When this happens there is rarely time to do the subject justice, however.

This webpage is an attempt to answer that question. It is written for anyone who is interested in the question, whether they know me or not, but it is especially written for those who have either wondered or asked me, "Why?", and received at most a partial answer.

Atheist Arguments

There are several ways of describing the different modes of nonbelief. One is to call "atheist" those opinions which include a disbelief in gods and "agnostic" those opinions which include neither belief nor disbelief. Another is to call "atheist" all opinions which do not include belief in gods and to consider an agnostic to be a type of atheist. I will use the first method here.

Atheists are further divided as to the nature of their disbelief. Those who believe that the existence of gods can be disproven are called "strong atheists" and those who believe that the existence of gods is possible in the same way that the existence of pink unicorns is possible are called "weak atheists". I am a strong atheist by most people's definition of god but can become a weak atheist when people hedge their definitions enough.

The following are the reasons I disbelieve in the various types of god.

The Contradiction of Omnipotent Agency

If the universe did not exist it would still be a theoretical possibility. If it were just a theoretical possibility there would be a theoretically possible Dennis Himes who would act in relation to this theoretically possible universe identically to how I act in relation to this actual universe. He would not be sitting around saying, "Darn it. I wish this universe were real instead of just theoretically possible." In fact, he would not know, and there would be no way he could possibly know, that his universe was just theoretically possible and not actual. "Theoretically possible" and "actual" are, therefore, just arbitrary labels when applied to universes. To a being in a universe that universe cannot not exist. An omnipotent god could not decide that a certain universe will exist (relative to itself) or not. If she had decided that our universe would not exist it would not make a bit of difference to us. This universe would still be a theoretical possibility and indistinguishable from a "created" universe to its inhabitants. For an omniscient god (and omnipotence implies omniscience), who knows all details of all possible universes, to "create" a universe would mean at most to assign a label to it, a label which is meaningless as far as the universe's inhabitants are concerned.

Although existence is usually treated as an absolute quality it really relative to some theoretically possible universe. It is treated as absolute because in the normal course of events the context of our own universe is assumed. So when we ask, "Does the Loch Ness Monster exist?" we are asking whether it exists relative to the universe we live in, not whether it exists relative to any possible universe. When speaking metaphysically, however, existence is relative to a given universe. To say that a universe exists relative to itself is simply a tautology and as little subject to causation as any other tautology.

Now consider two universes which are identical up to a certain point in time at which an event occurs in one but not the other. An omniscient being would know in every detail the entire futures of both universes. To the omniscient being each of the two universes would be equally real, and to say that the omniscient being "caused" the event would again be to assign a meaningless label. The omniscient being could not prevent the event from happening relative to the one universe nor cause it to happen relative to the other. The inhabitants of either universe would neither know nor care whether their universe is the one that "really happened" or the one that "could have happened but didn't".

An omniscient being (and therefore an omnipotent one) cannot be an agent. To be an agent is to choose which among several possible universes one will have more complete knowledge of. If I decide to turn left instead of right I will have far greater knowledge of the universe in which I turn left than the one in which I turn right. I would call the former universe "real" because that is the one I am receiving detailed information about via my senses. If I were omniscient that would not be the case. My knowledge of the two possible universes would be equally detailed and one would be as real to me as the other.

In addition, being an agent implies a privileged temporal reference, a present dividing past and future. This, however, is incompatible with omniscience, which includes an equally perfect understanding of every point in time and therefore no distinction between past and future.

Shaving Superman with Occam's Razor

The above subsection deals with a god who is an omnipotent agent. While that is the god most commonly believed in these days, less than omnipotent gods have also been hypothesized, especially in antiquity. These gods are almost always glorified humans -- they love, get angry, even father children -- but superhuman or not they all fall to Occam's razor.

Occam's razor is the principle that an explanation which requires fewer auxiliary hypotheses is more likely to be correct than one which requires more. As an example: Someone who lives alone comes home from work to find that the milk is on the kitchen table, and not in its usual place in the fridge. Two theories arise in that person's mind. First, that she forgot to put it away when she ate her cereal that morning. Second, that a burglar picked her lock, got out the milk to have a drink, decided against robbing the house, and left locking the door behind him, while forgetting to put the milk back. Occam's razor says to go with the first theory. The second cannot be disproven, but it requires the additional hypotheses of the existence of the burglar and of his unburglarlike behavior.

When gods are invoked to explain physical phenomena which are normally explained by natural causes the application of Occam's razor is obvious. An example of this would be saying that it normally rains for the standard meteorlogical reasons but it rained today because a farmer prayed to a god.

Invoking gods to explain physical phenomena which are not normally explained by natural causes was reasonable back when alternate explanations would have involved developing whole fields of science, but those days are long past. Not only does Occam's razor favor hypothesizing that existing knowledge can be extended over hypothesizing the existence, nature, and mechanics of an entirely unexamined class of being, but there have been many times in the past when the latter type of hypothesis was made and found wanting. The theist who tries to insert gods into the gaps of humanity's knowledge has a never ending task of moving his gods around as the gaps are closed one by one.

The Vanity of Humanity

There are those who treat God as simply the personification of the universe. When this is done metaphorically there is no harm in it, although it is not what most theists mean by "God". As soon as this personification is given the attributes of people, however, it becomes misleading. All evidence points to a universe indifferent to human fate. People have to jump through all sorts of hoops when they try to show otherwise, going so far as to posit the survival of the mind after death.

I attribute the personification of the universe to the vanity of the human species.

Theist Arguments

This section contains refutations of some common arguments in favor of theism. It only deals with arguments in favor of believing in God. Arguments in favor of pretending to believe in God are dealt with in the next section.

Causeless Effects

The best arguments in favor of theism are cosmological. While an eternally ancient universe has been proffered as a counterargument, the evidence of modern science points to a beginning of the universe, and I will assume that here. (Besides, eternal antiquity has its own problems.)

The theist argument is that the beginning of a universe is an effect, which implies a cause. But since the universe did not exist prior to its own beginning nothing in the universe can be that cause. Therefore something external to the universe must fill the role, and the theist offers a decision by God as that something. One difficulty with this reasoning is that God's decision is itself an effect which presumably wants a cause, and so the problem of a causeless effect is just pushed back one level instead of resolved. A greater difficulty, however, lies in the assumptions made in the original problem.

A causeless effect is problematic because when the laws of physics are applied to an effect while extrapolating into the past a cause is arrived at. If an object is positioned at (0,0,0) at time 0 and moving at a velocity of (17,0,0), then it must have been at (-34,0,0) at time -2. Claiming that nothing existed before time 0 implies that the object was not at (-34,0,0) at time -2, which contradicts the laws of physics, which claim that it was there. A causeless effect is a problem because when looking at it with time reversed it is equivalent to an effectless cause. Of course, saying that God created the universe at time 0 does not solve the problem, because it involves a violation of the laws of physics and a universe where the object did exist at (-34,0,0) at time -2 is still theoretically possible. Assigning the label of "beginning" to time 0 in that universe does not solve the problem of its origin.

The solution to this problem has recently been discovered by science, and is so elegant that it is a wonder that no one theorized it before its discovery. The universe began in a singularity, called the Big Bang. When travelling back in time all matter tends to a single point of infinite density. Since it is a singularity, the laws of physics make no prediction as to what existed before it. If we consider the moment of the Big Bang to be time 0, then physics makes no claim as to the state of anything at time -2, and there is no contradiction in denying existence to objects at that time. In fact, since the laws of physics make no prediction for time -2, any theory which makes claims for time -2 is completely independent of the universe we live in, and therefore not really a theory of our universe. The only theories which are consistent with what we know about the universe are those which posit that time had a beginning, so it would make as little sense to ask what existed at time -2 as it would to ask what lies on the surface of the Earth two miles north of the North Pole.

St. Anselm's Conception

St. Anselm's argument for the existence of God is a piece of sloppy thinking notable mainly for its persistence. It goes like this:

1. God is defined as a being for which a greater being cannot be conceived. [I'm not sure how Anselm defined great, but it's clear from context that existence is greater than nonexistence.]
2. Assume God does not exist.
3. I can conceive of a being identical to God except that it exists.
4. This is a contradiction, because this being is greater than God and by definition I cannot conceive of a being greater than God.
5. Therefore, by reductio ad absurdem, God exists.

The assumption in step 2 is supposed to be the atheist position which is being disproved. However, step 3 makes clear that step 2 is interpreted as "There exists x such that x is God and x does not exist.", instead of "There does not exist x such that x is God.", which would be an accurate description of the atheist position.

Compare St. Anslem's argument with the following one.

1. Santa Claus is defined as a being for which a being more like Moore's St. Nick cannot be conceived. [By "Moore's St. Nick" I mean St. Nicholas as described in Clement Moore's poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas.]
2. Assume Santa Claus does not exist.
3. I can conceive of a being identical to Santa Claus except that it exists.
4. Since existence is necessary for smoking pipes, delivering presents, etc., this is a contradiction, because this being is more like Moore's St. Nick than Santa Claus and by definition I cannot conceive of a being more like Moore's St. Nick than Santa Claus.
5. Therefore, by reductio ad absurdem, Santa Claus exists.

The Argument from Design

The Argument from Design is the claim that complexity implies a conscious designer and that God is the designer implied by the complexity of living organisms and/or the universe as a whole. This argument has become moot now that it has been shown, most notably by Charles Darwin and his disciples, how complexity can arise without conscious design.

Pseudotheist Arguments

A surprising number of arguments for believing in God are actually arguments for pretending to believe in God even if you actually don't.

"Wouldn't It Be Nice?"

The most basic form of pseudotheist argument is the claim that a universe with a God is nicer than a universe without a God, so by pretending to believe in God we live in a nicer universe. Of course, pretending something is so does not make it so, and someone accepting this argument is just setting herself up for the cognitive dissonance which arises when reality clashes with fiction.

A more serious objection to this strategy, however, is that it is intellectually dishonest. Someone accepting this has compromised her ability to think clearly and to honestly confront reality. Her life becomes a lie, and, in my humble opinion, that is not nice.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager is based on the assumption that there are only two possiblities for the nature of God:
A. God does not exist.
B. All of the following statements are true:
  1. God exists.
  2. There is an afterlife.
  3. God decides on the nature of an individual's afterlife, assigning a better afterlife to those individuals who believe in him.
  4. God either doesn't know or doesn't care if that belief is honest.

The conclusion is: because there is no downside to pretending to believe in God if he doesn't exist, but an upside to pretending to believe in him if he does exist, one should pretend to believe even if the probability of his existing is very small.

The most obvious problem with this argument is the claim that A and B are the only two possiblities. If, for instance, there exists a God who rewards honesty, not only does Pascal's Wager fail, but it becomes an argument against pretending to believe in God. Another problem is the assumption that there is no downside to pretending to believe in God if he doesn't exist, but, as I mentioned in the previous subsection, there is.

Relative Morality

Some theists argue that all morality is relative and that morality relative to the wishes of their god is superior to morality relative to anything else. (Confusingly enough, they tend to call morality relative to their god's desires "absolute morality", even though it is no such thing.) These theists usually pick some moral system which was espoused by some atheist somewhere and present it as the only possible atheist morality.

There are serious problems with a morality in which the basic principles of good and evil can be warped or discarded on whim, but these problems are as endemic to religious moral systems as they are to atheist ones, if not more so. Joseph Stalin is no more representative of all atheists than Tomás de Torquemada is of all theists.

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For an opposing viewpoint, see Avicenna's Backyard.

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